The idea of charging and trying juveniles as adults within the justice system directly involves the transfer and presentation of their cases from the juvenile to the criminal courts.Yet the very existence of the juvenile judicial system is based upon the developmental idea that minors’ psychological constitution differ significantly from that of an adult (Steinberg, 1). During the years of transition from childhood to adulthood, psychological development takes place and these developments affect the ability of the person to make informed decisions about actions that might be considered offensive (6).
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The recent trend in prosecution has resulted in an increase in the number of juvenile cases that are tried in criminal courts, and this can be seen to have occurred as a direct result of a change in the focus of the prosecution. While in former times, court cases have been offender-based, recently the prosecutors of these cases have been more focused on the nature of the offence rather than on the psychological make-up of the person who has committed the offence. This, coupled with the fact that many states have a cut-off minor age of well below the 18-year mark has led to a situation in which many under-age persons are being wrongly tried as adults for offences.
A person’s age should be of immense importance when one considers where and how to try them, as age has a direct bearing on the person’s ability to profit from the decision made by the court. Adult punishments are given under the assumption that the person who has committed the crime has done so with full awareness of the consequences. Even adults are sometimes allowed to plead in ways that portray them as being unaware of the consequences during the commission of the crime. Treating juveniles as adults places them at a disadvantage, as it is certain that many crimes are committed by some who have not reached a level of accountability and developmental maturity (Steinberg, 4). It cannot be considered justice when a juvenile is accorded a similar punishment to that given an adult, when that child could not have been in a similar position of understanding regarding the consequences of the actions he or she performed. Minor offenders should at least be uniformly granted consideration of their developmental disadvantages before being taken before a criminal court judge.
The trauma that a child is likely to suffer from being confined and punished as an adult is of such a magnitude from which any young person can hardly be expected to recover fully. The immaturity of these minors’ intellect as well as their emotional under-development almost ensures that these inpiduals would buckle under the pressure of such punishment. Even for adults it has been shown that “The adaptation to imprisonment is almost always difficult and, at times, creates habits of thinking and acting that can be dysfunctional in periods of post-prison adjustment” (Haney, par. 12).
When a psychologically under-developed child is exposed to conditions under which even adults have been shown to founder, this child cannot be expected to fare better than their older counterparts. It has also been expressed in several studies and by many researchers that the level of psychological taxation to which prisoners are exposed in prison has a direct and parallel effect on the extent to which these persons are harmed by the exposure. Haney goes on to write, “most people agree that the more extreme, harsh, dangerous, or otherwise psychologically-taxing the nature of the confinement, the greater the number of people who will suffer and the deeper the damage that they will incur” (par. 13).
When children, who are at a lower developmental stage than adults, are tried and sentenced as adults, the pressure that the experience places on them is greater than that which would have been experienced by an adult. This produces the effect of situation’s being one of more psychological pressure. In such a situation, a child has a higher likelihood of suffering harm from punishment akin to that given to an adult, and therefore should not be treated as one by the courts.
It is also the unfortunate reality that too many juvenile cases are being passed on to criminal courts without real regard for the psychological development of the inpidual in question. Many states do not regard offenders of ages 16 and 17 to be minors and therefore do not even consider them for charging and trial as juveniles (Steinberg, 2). This is true in states such as New York, where the jurisdiction for the juvenile courts do not go beyond 15 year olds (2). Therefore, a 16 year old child is automatically placed in the clutches of a system that treats him or her as an adult without regard for his or her mental or emotional condition. This, too, places the child at a disadvantage in a court system that was designed to handle adults. It forces the juvenile to face punishment as an adult when his or her emotional state is most likely not fit to handle the pressures of the adult penal system.
The options that remain open to a child when being tried as an adult reduce the availability of helpful alternatives to incarceration that could otherwise be offered under the juvenile system. The process of adjudication under a criminal (adult) trial is so vastly different from that to which a child would be exposed in a juvenile trial that even the trial itself has the ability to place undue burden on the psyche of the child (Steinberg, 4). In juvenile trials, care is taken to treat the offender in a way that would preserve his/her psychological constitution. This option is unavailable in a criminal court, as little or no care is taken in a situation where a juvenile is being tried as an adult.
Rather, the child (like an adult) is automatically assumed to be capable and competent to go through the rigors of trial (4). This should not be the case, as it is not to be assumed that “adjudicative competence holds for juveniles, who, even in the absence of mental retardation or mental illness, may lack sufficient competence to participate in the adjudicative process” (4). Furthermore, once tried as adults, children have a high likelihood of merely being turned over to prison warden. In fact, approximately 80% of all juveniles tried as adults are given prison sentences. If tried as juveniles, such children would have had other options such as house arrest, community service, or even just a shorter prison term (4).
Many persons object to the view that juveniles should not be tried as adults. Many of them advocate the saying that juveniles who commit “adult crimes” should be subject to doing “adult time” (Steinberg, 2-3). These persons argue using the same psychological development platform, saying that any mind that is able to plan and execute crimes of such magnitude (as adult felonies) cannot be said to suffer from any developmental disadvantages. Such a mind, they say, proves itself to be fully developed to adult capacity and committed to violent, unethical and immoral actions (Brown, par. 2). These persons, therefore, ought to be punished in the same way that an older offender would be.
These people point to such crimes as those committed at Columbine High and at many other schools around the country. These crimes have been demonstrated to be premeditated, and these children have even taken it upon themselves to invoke their own death penalties. In response to these arguments, it must be noted that the violent influences upon children’s minds have increased over the years with their exposure to violent movies and video games (Anderson & Bushman, 353). It is sometimes hard for these psychologically under-developed youth to make the right choices concerning their reactions to these influences. As a result of this consideration, the justice system should be even more understanding of the case of the juvenile offender.
The treatment of juveniles as adults in the justice system represents a misapplication of the laws of the criminal justice system, as it considers persons who are developmentally inferior as being able to understand and cope with the consequences of their actions. Children are not as fully aware as adults of the seriousness of certain offences that they might have committed. This is due to the fact that during the years of transition from childhood to adulthood, much psychological development occurs along with the more obvious physical ones. Children who are subject to criminal trials and subsequent incarceration are placed at a disadvantage because they are predisposed to react adversely to these forms of punishment. Such children should remain in the juvenile justice system where more efforts are made at understanding their circumstances and where wider rehabilitation measures are available to them.
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